Foreign Policy Digital

Al Qaeda Won

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, the terrorists have definitively won the battle for the American mind.

This year marks the 17th anniversary of 9/11, an awkward number offering an awkward amount of hindsight. The day is not quite memory, not yet history. Subsequent events during those 17 years—not only the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also the arrival of the smartphone and social media—have transformed its significance. 9/11 was a defining moment in the history of war and terrorism, but it was also the first attack conceived for and executed through the means of digital connection. It was to the internet what the Challenger explosion was to cable television, an event defined by the arrival of the way it was related, an act of war suited to technologically enabled mass storytelling and media saturation. The Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan once predicted that World War III would be a “guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” 9/11 was the beginning of that war.

T.E. Lawrence, who turned himself into the pop culture icon Lawrence of Arabia, was the great innovator of guerrilla information war in the 20th century. His best-known platitude held that “[t]he printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.” His autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom provides the fine details of how he came to that understanding. Lawrence was sick, and in camp, in the sweltering heat of his fly-ridden tent, when it occurred to him that Carl von Clausewitz and the other great military theorists of earlier eras would have considered the war he was waging unwinnable. The Arab forces could not destroy the enemy, take the major strongholds, or break the courage of their opponents, which was how the great generals of the past had defined victory. The insight crept up on him: What if those definitions were all wrong? What if, instead of winning the war by the traditional definitions of victory, the definition of victory changed? “[A]s I pondered slowly, it dawned on me that we had won the Hejaz war,” Lawrence writes. “I brushed off the same flies once more from my face patiently, content to know that the Hejaz War was won and finished with: won from the day we took Wejh, if we had had wit to see it.” He didn’t need to win. He just needed to decide he had won and convince the world. The struggle was to change the definition of victory, to change the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves.

The term Lawrence gave to this kind of semantic warfare was diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It was a battle for the stories people tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of the stories that people tell.

We had to arrange [our soldiers’] minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men’s minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the

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